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Maryland awarded its first license for slot-machine gambling on Wednesday afternoon, giving Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore permission to operate up to 800 machines as early as Memorial Day.

Marking a milestone in Maryland’s long-running battle over legalizing slots, a state commission unanimously approved the first of five sites authorized by voters in last year’s election.

“By our action today, we are showing this moving forward,” said Donald C. Fry, chairman of the seven-member commission, which began weighing bids in February following a bitter legislative debate over the issue that dominated state politics for years.

William M. Rickman Jr., a Potomac developer who owns Ocean Downs, said he hopes to have the slots parlor operating at his existing horse-racing track by Memorial Day. Several local approvals, including a building permit, still must be secured, but Worcester County officials have said they see no sizable hurdles ahead.

Rickman, who watched the commission proceedings in Annapolis, said he expects most of the customer base for slots at Ocean Downs to come from Ocean City, which is five miles east of the track. “We’re fortunate that Ocean City has a lot of people looking for things to do,” Rickman told reporters.

Decisions are expected in coming months on the only three other qualified applicants who responded in February to the state’s call for bids. The economic downturn was largely blamed for the anemic interest. The state is expected to re-bid the fifth license at some point.

In February’s bidding, applicants collectively sought fewer than half the 15,000 machines the state is allocating.

Fry indicated Wednesday that the next applicant likely to be considered for approval is Penn National Gaming, which has proposed putting 500 slot machines in Cecil County. The company, which is considering revising its proposal to include 1,500 machines, could be awarded a license as early as Oct. 21, Fry said.

The proposals for the two largest potential venues — in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore — are not likely to be acted upon as quickly.

Read more here.

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